Thursday, September 12, 2013

We Also Accept First-Born Children

Source: CBC News: Saskatchewan Tuition Increase Highest in Canada
Source: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: Paul Gingrich: After the Freeze: Restoring University Affordability in Saskatchewan
Source: Macleans OnCampus: Sask. NDP Commit to Tuition Freeze
Source: Macleans OnCampus: Saskatchewan Party Pledges Affordability
Source: News Talk 650: Wall Reacts to NDP Post Secondary Platform
Source: Saskatoon Homepage: UofS Salaries Questioned Ahead of Projected Deficit 

In a continuing trend for the government of Brad Wall, Saskatchewan's tuition rates soared higher than a NASA based program for this academic year. Since removing the tuition freeze when first coming to power, the news of Saskatchewan's higher learning facilities raising tuition rates has been as regular as morning breath.

It seems with each passing academic year, the universities find themselves in need of raising tuition levels. It feels a bit like the Weimar Republic; just keep printing money and devaluing the currency until we sort the mess out. Only instead of deflating, we're inflating the cost of higher education.

But Saskatchewan's increasing tuition rates were national news this time around, as our province  had the single largest increase of 4.7%. This even outpaces the standard increase levels of 3.4% noted by sociologist Paul Gingrich; you can read Paul's full paper on the subject by checking out our sources at the top.

So, we're outpacing ourselves it would seem on the race to the bottom.

We also managed to make programs for graduate students more expense (4.9% more expensive) and programs for international students more expense (6.7%). This has also taken Saskatchewan's tuition for an undergraduate student to the SECOND HIGHEST in Canada; with an average of $6,394.

Let's do the math on that.

So, a 4 year undergraduate degree for tuition costs: $25,576 in tuition alone. Add on to that the monumental cost of textbooks (Rarely do you find a textbook under $100, and some classes require you to purchase between 2 - 5 books, which you will sometimes rarely use), the cost of housing, the cost of food, recreational expenses (include alcohol for the party-hardy crowd), and we're probably look at between $35,000 (on the low ball) and $50,000 (high ball) for a four year degree.

 And to date, what has the Wall Government done to help students out?

Let's start with the good, as there's only one thing to talk about there. The Wall Government expanded the Graduate Retention Program; by allowing students who stayed in Saskatchewan to receive up to $20,000 of their tuition back over a four year period.

The problem with the Retention Program, and as an habitually unemployed graduate I can speak with some authority here, is that it will rarely be used by the student to pay down their debt load. If a graduate is staying in Saskatchewan, but continually can't find employment, that rebate money is going towards food in their belly and a roof over their head...Not paying down their student loan debt.

It's sort of like the infamous 'beer and popcorn' complaint about the Child Tax Credit idea. Sure, we want our graduates to spend that money on getting out of debt, but there are other expenses that jump to the front of the queue, especially expenses that involve staying alive.

So, let's move on to the bad.

In 2007, the epitome of Wall's post-secondary education program was to give all high school graduates $2,000 over four years to knock $500 of their yearly tuition. So, looking at the average, Premier Wall gives new students an average tuition of $5,894 a year...And only if they're coming directly from high school to university.

Though, Wall apparently does understand post-secondary education to a degree. After all, in 2011, when responding to the NDP's platform of reinstating a tuition freeze, Wall had this to say:

"We’ve seen huge increases when freezes inevitably come off."

Well, he's certainly living up to that expected vision of what happens when a tuition freeze disappears. Wall also warned that tuition freezes place a university in trouble if a government doesn't live up to it's funding commitments under a freeze.

Were we not paying attention when he was making these comments? He basically laid out, par for the course, what was going to happen to post-secondary education. A untrustworthy government backing out of financial commitments to the universities, and huge increases to tuition in a post-freeze era.

Does this mean every time Wall rings a warning bell about something, we should be nailing down the hatches and waiting for when his government brings that exact scenario to fruition?

After all, Wall's 2011 election platform talked about increased funding to post-secondary institutions; yet we've heard for the last two years, if not more, how the government is not providing adequate funding. After all, the UofS is currently looking for ways to shave 10% of its current budget to avoid a potential $40 million dollar shortfall by 2016; and they're doing so by looking for people to layoff.

I need to have a side note here, just for a moment. Wall's underfunding of post-secondary institutions is only part of the problem. The other part is the administration of these post-secondary institutions. Ilene Busch-Vishniac, President of the University of Saskatchewan, made waves when she announced that hers (and other key administrators) salaries, benefits, and bonuses were not on the chopping block.

In addition to her $400,000 a year salary, Busch-Vishniac also receives the following perks:
  • $12,000 per year allowance for a vehicle
  • $7,500 per year allowance on financial and tax assistance, 
  • 6 weeks of paid vacation a year
  • 1 Rent-free home (though, technically, it's a mansion and it's located on Campus)
  • $253.49 a month for health and dental insurance plan
Then there's the other senior administrators who have similar perks. The UofS has defended this move by saying that top administrators amount to just 0.36% of the overall budget; and then tacks on the standard line about needing perks and top pay to 'attract and retain' professionals.

Am I the only who thinks that attracting and retaining professionals is good when that it tacks onto actual professors?  I think most people would be fine with recruiting and paying a world-class researcher or expert in their field to teach at the University; but we start to run into issues when we apply this designation to administrators behind the scenes.

Yes, we want competent people running the administration of the school; there's no debate about that. But do we really need $400,000 + perks of competence? When Peter MacKinnon started his term as President, his yearly wage was $200,000. And over less than a decade, it has doubled for his predecessor.

And given the perks included, especially a rent-free house, there's very little room to argue for 'living expenses' here. An administrator could survive EASILY on $200,000 a year. Hell, an administrator can survive COMFORTABLY on $100,000.

Ultimately, when students talk about where to go, they don't discuss the Administration. They discuss the programs, the faculty, the atmosphere, and the tuition. The current administration at the UofS is putting the horse before the cart; you shouldn't be talking about attracting and retaining exceptional administrators, but rather attracting exceptional students.

The point of education is to educate; not fatten the school's purse and dole out the largesse to administrators. If that's a university's goal, here's a suggestion to potential students, DON'T GO THERE.

Now that we've shared equal blame with the universities, let's get back to Brad Wall.

His government has talked about funding post-secondary institutions, but consistently missed the mark on actually providing this funding. It's a good soundbite during an election, of course, but quickly forgotten once in government. After all, there's more important things, like banjo playing, to be done.

If Wall is going to continue to allow tuition raise to rise (Ontario is still ahead of us, maybe when he talks about Saskatchewan being number one, this was on his hit list of items), then he at least needs to follow through on funding promises to the universities that will allow them to reduce tuition.

There's a lot more I could say about this issue, but I'll wrap it up with this thought.

Education is not a privilege, it is a right. The fact that we educate our children up to grade twelve on the taxpayer dollar (another education sector this government is currently failing) supports this argument. Education doesn't just enrich the person who undergoes it, but their entire community by creating skilled individuals who can contribute their knowledge back.

When you make education impossible to access, you are condemning a generation. Not just economically, but personally. Education enriches, its one of the few things in life that rarely does harm to a person. Denying education creates problems; while providing education creates solutions.

And that's a message we can all support.

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